is a Finnish art historian and curator based in Bonn, Germany. She specialises in Finnish ontemporary art, design, and handycraft. She has curated numerous exhibitions all over Europe. She is also an author and holds lectures on Finnish art, architecture, and culture. With Markku Piri, she has been collaboratingsince the 1990s on various exhibitions.
Markku Piri – a seeker of beauty with an open mind
“Creative people are curious, flexible, persistent and independent with a tremendous spirit of adventure and a love of play.” – Henri Matisse
Markku Piri, Finnish designer and artist, graduated from the University of Industrial Arts, Helsinki in 1979 with a degree in textile art. His career got off to a promising start as he landed his first job at Marimekko (1979-81), the legendary Finnish textile design company. It was a great learning opportunity for a budding designer but it soon turned out that textile design alone was not enough for this young multi-talented artist burning with creativity. From the very first stages of his career, Piri started expanding his role by trying his hand at a variety of new materials, always taking on new challenges.
Today, this daring eclectic has a CV of staggering variety. In addition to textiles, he has designed shoes, jewelry, theatrecostumes, stage designs, and ceramic tiles. He has created kitchen designs and even contributed to their industrial production by painting with modern wood-grain technique. He has created glass objects, paintings, prints and photographs; he even designed the visual look and Finnish team kit for the European and World Athletics Championships. He is a talented and analytical writer. In both exhibitions, architecture and interior design, he has an extraordinary gift for combining lines, surfaces, colours, shapes and spaces into a total work of art, in which the light plays an essential role.
Markku Piri with fabrics designed for Finlayson (1984)
With good reason, Markku Piri can be compared to other wide-ranging artists in the history of art such as Henri Matisse (1869–1954), who created paintings, drawings and sculptures and was the first theoretician of modernism. In his old age, Matisse discovered the possibilities of paper cut-outs and even utilised the technique in an artist’s book. At the age of 77, he was so inspired by stained glass that he even designed the architecture, interior and glass windows for the Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence, France. What Markku Piri and this master of classic modernism also have in common is a natural free flow of making art and savouring the process. They both celebrate the beauty of the world in their work, often depicting visions of paradise on earth. For Markku Piri, too, colour and light are essential elements. “Without colours I would go mad” is probably Piri’s most cited phrase.
Blue, the colour of sky and water, has fascinated people throughout history, not least because it holds a certain mystic quality. In ancient Egypt, it was the colour of the gods. In Greece and Rome, indigo was considered second only to purple. In the Middle Ages, blue was the symbol of purity – hence Mary’s blue mantle. Romanticism praised the “blue flower of yearning”. To Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, the artists of Der Blaue Reiter (the Blue Rider) group, blue symbolised spirituality. Blue was the purest and most meditative colour for the French artist Yves Klein, who actually patented his favourite shade, ultramarine, under the name of “International Klein Blue”. Blue is also closest to Markku Piri’s heart, and throughout his career of over 35 years, he has been using a broad palette of its shades. However, one hue is particularly dear to him: the warm and festive “Piri Blue”, dominated by cobalt tones.
According to the German Expressionist painter August Macke (1887–1914), good painters have a “physiognomic, spiritual” vision and eye for colour. These are definitely Markku Piri’s strengths, regardless of the material he works with. Over the years, he has developed these gifts further through the analytical study of colours and their qualities. He uses both bold, strong contrasts and the subdued play of variations on one hue. He is also proficient with what he calls the “graphic” scale based on shades of black, grey and white. In German, this scale is aptly termed “Nichtfarben”, or “non-colours”. Piri makes excellent use of this scale in his black-and-white photos, which record the complex interplay of shadow and light, dark and bright, and positive and negative shapes. Piri’s entire body of work, featuring both delicate, lyrical tones and generous, baroque or expressionist textures, is a masterclass in colour, in all its expressions and effects.
Photo by Markku Piri
In 1981, Markku Piri left Marimekko and moved to New York, his home base until 1991. He sought to broaden his horizons and to gain some distance from the dominant influence in the Finnish design scene: the functionalist tradition with its ideal of clean-cut shapes and scarce colour, for which even the tiniest hint of decoration seemed almost a criminal offence. During this period, Piri travelled extensively. He spent time in Portugal and Italy, worked in projects with US companies, and in Japan, Sweden, Germany and Finland. Even today, travelling is one of Piri’s passions. He also loves to relax in the peace and quiet of his summer residence in the heart of Eastern Finland. Wherever he goes, Piri keeps all his senses alert and finds new inspiration for his work. As far as art, design and architecture go, he is an omnivore. He is interested in high quality of any kind, whether in ancient Greek sculpture, Italian Renaissance masterpieces, Art Nouveau or international modern art. He is fascinated by old cities with their layers built by time. He will always stop by an old house to study the colours revealed by the peeling paint. Piri brings back countless snapshots from his travels, a visual aide-memoire of urban spaces, surfaces, shapes and hues as well as natural details and atmospheres. Impressions from architecture, design, visual arts and nature accumulate in the artist’s mind and re-emerge in his works through a process that is often unconscious.
Heijastus (Reflection). In the core of the Finnish experience: sunset or sunrise by the lakeside. Markku Piri created a collection of interior textiles for the Finnish Eurokangas company in celebration of the centenary of Finland’s independence in 2017.
Markku Piri has the same straightforward attitude to artistic influences as the great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto (1898-1976), who said: “In the past, it has always been possible to be international and open-minded, and, at the same time, true to oneself. We, too, can keep an open mind and take on influences from the old cultures, Italy and Spain, and from the new, United States…” In this vein, Markku Piri always stays true to himself, and despite all the influences he gathers, he stamps his own mark on his work – it is always distinctly “created by Piri”.
Like so many visual artists, Markku Piri finds music essential for his work. He has organised numerous concerts out of love for jazz and classical music. In his atelier, he always has music playing in the background. The multi-tonal, dynamically flowing layers of colour in his paintings and designs automatically turn the viewer’s thoughts to music. It is as if he was able to transform shades of colour into musical tones.
Finland boasts a long established tradition of glass art. Finnish glass design rose to international fame in the post-war period, particularly during the 1950s and 60s, the Golden Age of Finnish design. In addition to factory production, the first innovative sculptural works were created by legendary designers such as Timo Sarpaneva (1926–2006) and Tapio Wirkkala (1915–1985), who collaborated with Finnish master glassblowers. Tapio Wirkkala was the first Finn to work for the Italian Venini in Murano, Venice. Both Wirkkala and Sarpaneva stressed that the glory is not theirs alone, as glassblowing is essentially teamwork. They respected the skill and experience of glassblowers, and in their opinion, the best of them were to be found in Finland and Murano.
Piri has a thorough knowledge of the Finnish glass art tradition and a great respect for it. Early in his career, in the 1990s, he was keen on continuing this strong tradition in his own way. He found glass an enchanting material with its almost magical combination of light, colour and three-dimensionality. Of course, as a newcomer to glass art, he was well aware of the enormity of the task he had set himself – but Piri would not be Piri, had he not embraced the challenge. He set about learning the secrets of glassmaking, with humility but also curiosity and ambition.
Like Sarpaneva and Wirkkala, Piri decided that he, too, had to find a way to work with the best professionals in the field. In 1998, he created his first glass works in cooperation with Jaakko Liikanen, the Finnish master glassblower, who honed his craft through many visits to the Murano masters’ studios.
From years of working with glass, Piri has gradually gained a deeper understanding of this temperamental material, which can sometimes defeat even the most seasoned of masters. A moment’s distraction, a wrong move or an error of judgment can ruin the entire piece. Since 2011, Piri has been working with the Lasismi Co-operative, the young generation of talented Finnish glassmakers: Joonas Laakso, Kaappo Lähdesmäki and Kimmo Reinikka. With them, Piri has created an innovative series of sculptural objects with a fabulous palette. Displayed in Piri’s international exhibition tour, The Spirit of Paradise (2011–2012), the objects consist of four different shapes that can be freely paired into new combinations of varying shapes and shades.
A brilliant culmination of Piri’s works in glass are the unique or limited-edition glass sculptures and objects created specifically for this tour. In Murano, they are produced by the top Venetian masters: Pino Signoretto, Gambaro & Tagliapietra, Simone Cenedese and Gianni Seguso. In Finland, Piri collaborates with the Lasismi Co-operative in Riihimäki to create a series of unique pieces he calls his “archaic glass series”. The main inspiration for this series is the exhibition space in Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence, and particularly the worn Michelangelesque triple staircase. On this staircase, Piri will lay out an installation as a homage to the greatest of Renaissance masters.
Another installation consists of a monumental string of beads created with Pino Signoretto, the soft-toned Time zones glass sculptures and the Peony serigraph, all in a delicate interplay of form and hue. The giant string of beads is Piri’s way of reminding us of the Venetian glass bead tradition.
At the heart of these beautiful works of ethereal tones are timeless shapes, a play on transparency and opacity, diaphanous yet layered texture, and a rich variety of surface finishing techniques. All this is brought to life by the touch of light.
Piri’s latest unique glass works are definitely modern, yet respectfully aware of Europe’s long history of glassmaking, spearheaded by Murano. Some pieces in the archaic series are reminiscent of ancient Roman glass, as reflected in the colour of A bottle of whimsical expectations, and the threedimensional surface of A bottle of myrrh, which echoes the Roman prunted (? printed?) glass technique.
Despite his exceptionally wide range, Piri stays true to his roots as a textile artist. Among other works, the Italian tour showcases a new collection of interior textiles produced by the Eurokangas textile company. With its ten painterly designs on thoroughly Finnish themes, the collection was created for the centennial of Finland’s independence, which is being celebrated this year. The inspiration for the collection comes from the Finnish nature and the changing moods of the four seasons.